The new horror film Don’t Breathe from director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead, Panic Attack) was the first film I’d seen in the cinema since Christmas. I was excited to again feel the experience of the cinema and the thrill of being frightened. Don’t Breathe, while occasionally indulging maybe a little too much in the tropes of the horror, succeeded in reinvigorating my love for the physical cinema theatre.
The story follows Rocky (Jane Levy) and her friends and partners in crime Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) as they try to rob the house of a wealthy retired blind veteran. Except, as you can expect, it’s not quite that simple. Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayague play on the heightened senses humans gain when one sense is lost. The typical antagonist of The Home Invasion thriller (the burglars) are no longer the primary villains. Instead the veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) becomes one of the most humanly terrifying villains I’ve encountered on film. Their plan to steal his money becomes a dangerous and trauma inducing decision, during which we are on edge oddly cheering them on to survive and to ultimately win.
I want to just quickly address my statement suggesting it indulges a bit much in “the tropes of the horror” because this for me is still an undecided and paradoxical belief. When looking at the plot for Don’t Breathe before deciding to see it I couldn’t help but think of another impressive 2016 horror: Mike Flanagan’s ‘Hush’. Both play on senses, but more importantly both play more on the horror genre than most have done in the past. Both films present us with a sensual statement that tells us that the possibilities of Horror are not all exhausted, that there’s so much more experimentation to come. Here’s where I confuse myself, the tropes I’m thinking about (the prolific music and sound effects, the backgrounds of some of the characters etc) may still be necessary. In order to experiment with film, you still occasionally need the typical elements of that genre in order to progress it. If we take the lovey-dovey out of a Romance many audiences will not define it as a Romance and as a result it cannot be sold as such. So although some moments in Don’t Breathe feel a little too familiar, even it isn’t intentional, it is, for the moment, necessary in order to introduce Alvarez’ new take on the horror.
One of the most unfortunately striking differences (and I say unfortunately because it shouldn’t be striking) is the casting of a female lead who isn’t useless, weak or innocent. It is refreshing to see a woman in possibly one of the most prominent roles of the film, showing not only her weakness and fright BUT primarily her dedication to her daughter and her strength. In fact the weak ones, arguably, are the men. Money is aptly greedy, frustratingly arrogant and macho but weak in the sense of naivety and… well.. common sense. Alex is much more likable as a character, but while showing some bravery, is one of the most frightened and innocent of them all.
What makes this even better is the casting of Jane Levy (Evil Dead, Suburgatory) as Rocky. Her performance is forceful and admirable. The love for her daughter and the need to keep her safe is evident purely through the intensity Levy brings to the characters endless persistence to survival. On a personal note Levy was a staple of my teenage life, watching every episode of Suburgatory from its start (when I was 16) to it’s end (when I was 19). Having also not seen Evil Dead yet, seeing her in this role, rather different from her role as Tessa Altman was refreshing and showed a different side to her versatile acting range.
Her performance is not the only impressive one. Money played by Daniel Zovatto (It Follows, Beneath) convinces us of this money driven, misogynistic man and makes us both enjoy his characters dynamic in the story and hate his guts for his attitude. Alex played by Dylan Minnette (Saving Grace, Awake) displays a great understanding of all emotions the character is displaying (which is a lot) and is able to switch from frightened to determined in a natural and commendable manner. Then we have Norman ‘The Blind Man’ played by Stephen Lang (Gods and Generals, Avatar) who even in his smaller lines is frankly astounding. He is terrific in his posture, and in presenting this man who while blind is this omnipotent, omniscient, almost alien villain. When he does speak his voice booms out in a dark, sinister tone, that makes us forget he has any form of disability and instead makes us want to cry and run away.
I will be honest with you, I hold Horrors in a different distinction of ratings and of categorical perception because they seem so far away from every other genre. It feels more natural to compare the drama to the comedy, but not the horror to the romance. There is just something that makes it impossible to compare a horror to anything else but another horror. It is, in this respect then, how I review it. It is a eye-opening horror that has, along with Hush, made me excited for the future of the horror. It is a beautifully shot piece that unlike many other horrors seems to take far more time in establishing a visual and motion-full narrative. Then when it comes to what, for me, is one of the most critical elements of a horror – the fear- it is possibly one of the most tense, and terrifying horrors I’ve seen in a while. It both plays on the fear of jump scares and psychological fears (of claustrophobia, of the dark etc). This film could have gone many ways, and that was the best part of the concept when deciding to go, and I am impressed with what I saw. I am now waiting impatiently for the dvd to come out so I can compare my experience in the cinema to at home, to see if my view changes at all.
For me ‘Don’t Breathe’ was a gripping, disturbing and ultimately thrilling piece that helps continue 2016’s run as a good year for horror.
On Thursday I will be reviewing the 2013 Denis Villeneuve thriller ‘Prisoners’!